CHAPEL HILL — A local youth-development program intent on making social mobility available for the poor is ramping up its efforts.
Building Futures, run by the Orange County Department of Social Services, teaches low-income youth the skills they need for professional success. The program, funded by federal money, held meetings throughout the county this winter to attract members and volunteers.
“There were approximately 12 to 15 people in attendance at each session,” youth program coordinator Kysha Thompson said. “It was a great start. There were youth, parents and representatives from various community agencies.”
Visitors learned about the program’s services, eligibility and requirements, and met with former and current students. The program obtained potential work-experience sites and connected with people interested in volunteering for tutoring and mentoring services.
“We’ve been able to help quite a few people since the program first began,” fellow youth program coordinator Caraina Garris said.
Local professionals teach students about budgeting money, avoiding debt, interviewing for jobs, wearing proper work attire, writing memos and emails, and the importance of community involvement.
“Basically anything that will help them thrive in the workforce,” Garris said.
Aside from job-skills training, students have access to paid and unpaid work experience, dropout prevention services, summer jobs, tutoring, study skills materials and career readiness certification.
‘People like me’
“I never even thought something like (Building Futures) was available for people like me,” said Mercedez Smith, 23, of Chapel Hill, who’s been in the program two years . “I’ve learned so much that I can bring with me and use for the rest of my life. These kinds of lessons aren’t always taught to kids in poor neighborhoods.”
The program was run by Joint Orange Chatham Community Action (JOCCA) for over a decade, until the Department of Social Services took it over last summer with 25 active students. The department wants to enroll 45 new participants between the ages of 16 and 21.
As Smith sees it, some Chapel Hill residents with college degrees, 401(k)s or luxury cars don’t appreciate the problems of the poor.
“There’s a lot of people who live here that don’t understand there are a lot of poorer people here,” she said. “We don’t live very far from them. This is a real problem and it won’t go away by simply ignoring it.”
Just looking for work or preparing for a job interview can be daunting, she said.
“Many of us want to work but can’t, or are afraid to try because we don’t know how to go after the jobs we want,” Smith continued. “And a lot of lower-income people really do want to work, but don’t have what they need to do things like get the clothes for the job they want.”
Smith, who is training for a law enforcement career, said Building Futures has built her confidence and helped her overcome such obstacles.
“By helping people who try to help themselves today, less people will need that help in the future,” she said. “I know people who graduate from it will better themselves (and) will help others, because they’ll remember how much having someone believe in them meant.”